Mavis Staples – Livin’ On A Higher Note (Album Review)

I heard that America is considering replacing one of their White Male Presidents with a suitably famous female figure on one of their bank notes.  The most likely candidate, if it does ever happen, would be Rosa Parks.  But I’d suggest a second candidate: Mavis Staples.  By now most people know about her long and eventful life and her career, which began with her time singing with the legendary Staples Singers during one of the most contentious periods in American history. And hers’ is a voice that still continues to resonate as one of the most powerful and relevant voices of the Civil Rights movement. As America faces the upcoming electoral circus, with all those old scabs picked over once again, her soothing, rational lyrics and uplifting music is as relevant today as it ever was.   But the passing of time has mellowed Staples somewhat.  Still, she still clearly wears her faith on her sleeve.  Since joining Anti-Records more than a decade ago her exceptional output has continued to grow and her audience’s hunger for it has kept track with that.

Staples is a hard worker and the rewards have paid off.  The week her new album, Livin’ on A High Note, was released it was announced that her version of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s See That My Grave Is Keep Clean won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance – her second to date.  Last year she also made the Ep Your Good Fortune with Son Little and also was heavily involved with the HBO biopic Mavis!  Hopefully, that film will find its way over to our shores sometime soon.  Through all that she’s toured constantly both in the States and overseas.  Retirement, it seems, is not on the agenda.

Now 76, her passion for togetherness, hope and social harmony is still strong.  Many of her records have a strong religious undercurrent and messages of hope through faith have been central to her music.  But on …High Note, her fifteenth studio album, she’s branched out, enfolding a diverse group of collaborators into the mix and more variation in tempo and styles.

The album starts with Benjamin Brooker’s Take Us Back – a bright, breezy nod to growing up in Chicago and reconnecting with her roots.  “I got friends and I got family,” she sings “I got help from all the people who love me.” Booker is just one admirer giving back.  … Higher note also credits song writing to  Ben Harper, Neko Case, the tUnE-yArDs, The Head and the Heart, Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Nick Cave, Aloe Blacc, Son Little, John Batiste and M. Ward, who drove the producer’s console at LA’s King Size Soundlabs.  Also on board is her new kindred spirit in blues singer Valerie June who wrote the album’s signature tune High Note.

I was a little surprised not to see Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) involved this time, given his heavy contribution on her last work One True Vine and previous works.  In fact it was through Tweedy that I got to meet her at a concert in Wellington, a few years back when she supported Wilco’s Australasian tour.  Although only five foot in stature, her aura and personality just seemed to fill the room.  “Honey,” she told me, “we need to fill you up!”  And she did, later that night on stage with her huge, raspy, powerful voice.  It was a voice filled with experience, heartache, optimism, caring, and above all, faith.  How Staples uses all this on her new record, her most diverse so far, is the most remarkable thing.

All the way through, it’s clear that this is her gig.  Every writer has done their homework, taking absolute care to get inside her head, crafting lyrics the way she would, right down to phrasing.  Ben Harper’s Love and Trust, is an easy fit, with a heapin’ helping of old school gospel in the chorus.  It showcases backing singer Sonny Gerrard’s deep, soulful timbre which is paired flawlessly with Vicki Randle’s own to produce spine-tingling harmonies.  Vernon and Ward paint “Dedication” with pastoral brush.  It’s not really country-soul but you could see Ray Charles wanting to cover this one.  Nick Cave has always focussed on the darker side of religion.  He’s gravitated towards confessionals, fire, brimstone, redemption.  So it was a surprise to find him on the end of the pen writing “Jesus Lay Down Beside Me”.  It’s a lighter, more uplifting song – more akin to Staples’ earlier works.  It’s also one of the album’s most poignant and powerful tunes.

Staples recently told the American press that her agenda for this record was to ‘be joyful’.  She wanted to stop people crying, stop all the negativity in the world.  It’s her deliberate plan to spread good vibrations.  For this album, her template was Pharrell William’s Happy, she’s said.  Given her own past, she’s better equipped to speak to the audiences of today who are still reeling from economic crises, endless wars in the Middle Eastern, terrorist threats, poverty gaps and all manner of social upheaval.  Her tool kit is a deep pocket of feel-good affirmations like “Don’t Cry” and the delightfully simple adaption of Alma Bazel Androzzo’s “If I Can Help Somebody,” redone as MLK, which was quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., at the conclusion of his famous “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, delivered two months before he was murdered.  Five years earlier, in 1963, the song was recorded by Mahalia Jackson.  Her father Pops Staples encountered Dr King in 1963 and eventually became one of his confidantes.  The Staples Singers often open at his public appearances right up until he was assassinated.  So it’s probably the most personal and historic track on this album. It’s also the most stripped-down track on the record, with Mavis accompanied only by Ward’s acoustic guitar.

“If I can do my duty, as a Christian ought,

If I should sing salvation to the world he wrought,

If I can spread the message that the Master taught,

Then my living will not be in the vain.”

The writing may be diverse but in every case Staples has interpreted them with her own personal touch.  Every song is reinforced with themes of spiritual strength, community, friendship.  A cynic would claim this is no different than the stale, worn messages every churchman pumps out on every corner of every town across the country.  Yet, in Staples’ case the messages are so pure, so universal and so genuine you can’t help but be encouraged.

Tim Gruar

Click here to listen to Love And Trust from Livin’ On A High Note: